Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.


Getting a grip

Q: The flight attendant who melted down after a passenger's overhead luggage beaned him, has become something of a folk hero. Steven Slater cursed out the traveler over a loudspeaker and then slid out of the plane's exit chute, exclaiming "I quit!" Can blowing up -- even in a professional capacity -- be a good thing? Have you ever rebelled, or wanted to?

Getting mad at work? Normal. Screaming obscenities at the customers and sliding down the emergency chute? Irresponsible at any level.

Efforts to turn Steven Slater's bizarre behavior into some kind of "Everyman" story for the workplace are just as irresponsible as his actions.

Claims that he had some justification for losing control send the wrong message to other workers, including kids in school who are just learning about work. Developing self-control is one of the most essential skills necessary for successful employment, to say nothing of successful life in just about any setting.

Sure, we all have days at work when we'd like to express our liberation fantasies, preferably in front of the customers or co-workers from whom we want to be liberated. Anyone who doesn't have at least one other person who drives them nuts at work must be working alone (and even that might not work in all cases!). Most of us, however, have developed sufficiently civilized professional personas to keep our inner wild beasts under control.

We live and work in an extraordinary Age of Rudeness. Those of us who choose our life's work in businesses that serve the general public -- education, health care, retail, tourism, transportation including airlines -- must accept the fact that we will encounter customers every day who appear to have no "home training" to speak of. While most people really are polite and patient, all it takes is one screaming, rude, demanding customer to ruin our day.

Early on, we have to learn how to get a grip and hold on fast, despite many provocations. If we can't do that, we need to consider other lines of work, though most do involve some human contact.

Employers must help employees learn to deal effectively with the many outrageous forms of behavior that customers and co-workers exhibit each day. Good employers should also be mindful of the stress levels inherent in certain occupations and provide relief on a firm schedule.

I have no idea what kind of program Jet Blue had for its flight attendants, but surely, the airline industry must have training and counseling standards for dealing with the common stressors of air travel.

Every job I've ever held has included high stress levels, mostly imposed by other people's needs, demands and oft-bizarre behaviors. In one early job, I found my boss so intolerable that I once threw a book at him, literally. Fortunately, he had already left my office and didn't see me do it. Typical for him, he didn't hear the thud against the wall or what it was actually saying about my frustration. His obtuseness actually forced me to learn better coping skills, including going back to school so that I could update my credentials to move on to new work.

Maintaining a disciplined "game face" at work requires practice and an outlet to let off steam. In my younger days I was a runner and putting in daily miles helped to reduce stress. My running days are over, but now I swim, and whenever the day seems too much, I try to hit the pool. Something about ear plugs, goggles and being under water helps to put some distance between me and those who are bugging me!

The key to real professional success is to maintain personal discipline while focusing on excellence in executing the specific tasks at hand. No one will hire or retain for long an employee who cannot control emotions, who views customers as problems, who constantly kvetches about the work at hand.

Explosive workplace behaviors are not a sign of free expression, but rather, a cry for help that may have consequences far beyond losing the job. Flight attendant Slater is getting his 15 minutes of fame right now, but it's hard to imagine where he might find work when the publicity caravan moves on to the next sideshow.

By Patricia McGuire  |  August 16, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Success and controversy Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The guy's a lout | Next: JetBlue's Rorschach test


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Jet Blue does not sound like the type of airline one would want to board.

Posted by: peterroach | August 18, 2010 9:35 PM
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Screw you! How's that for civility?

Posted by: adrienne_najjar | August 18, 2010 4:21 PM
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Posted by: nall92 | August 18, 2010 12:52 PM
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Let's not forget employers and managers in this mix. I have had many in my time, some very good and some truly horrible. My most recent nightmare was a man going through a divorce (with a hotly contested custody/visitation battle) with unpaid State sales tax for the prior year, unfiled 2008 or 2009 Federal and state income tax, a complaint with the State Attorney General. Suffice it to say, he wasn't the nicest guy to work for.

He'd make sales calls, but leave no measurements or other information. I'd have to guess (not my style) or wait until he was available. He was hardly available, so you know how well that went. Nothing was ever his fault - he understood little of the entire process and thought that things came together by magic, I guess.

I wish for him the Karma he deserves.

Posted by: MichelleKinPA | August 18, 2010 11:20 AM
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"Explosive workplace behaviors are not a sign of free expression, but rather, a cry for help that may have consequences far beyond losing the job."

Either that or a sign that something has gone seriously amiss at your place of work. Perhaps it is time for supervisors to to realize that, more often than not, the fault lies in their clueless behaviors and in their faith in whatever management book happens to be on the best-seller list that week.

Posted by: jamalmstrom | August 16, 2010 6:09 PM
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Congratulations to you, Steve. I'm looking for my parachute.

Posted by: farnaz_mansouri2 | August 16, 2010 3:34 AM
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